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Black History Month: Henrietta Lacks

Posted on January 24, 2022
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The following blog post is authored by Annaliese Collins, a public health major at Muhlenberg College, class of 2023. They are passionate about peer education, community health and wellness, and disease prevention.


Black History Month
Black History Month challenges Americans to learn more about the integral role that Black Americans have in the history of our country. As we celebrate these pioneers, we must simultaneously recognize that this is not just an issue of the past. The trials and tribulations, the racism, and the injustices that Black Americans face are still occurring today. 

Some of the most important developments made within the fields of medicine and science were made possible by Black doctors, biologists, professors, researchers, and patients. Families Fighting Flu will be reflecting on the legacies of five Black pioneers in medicine and science. In this post, we highlight Henrietta Lacks. 

Henrietta Lacks
Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951) is the source for the HeLa cell line, the first immortalized human cell line. A mother of five, Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where two samples were unknowingly taken from her cervix without her consent. She died at the age of 31 after her cancer had spread to the rest of her body.

Her cells are unique in that they continue to stay alive and grow, allowing for numerous scientific studies to be conducted. As such, HeLa cells have played an important role in the development of vaccines, including polio and COVID-19, the human genome project, and testing for medications for HIV and influenza. The cells have been used in over 110,000 research publications worldwide. Henrietta Lacks did not publicly receive recognition as the source of HeLa until 1975.

Lacks is both a hero within the medical world and one of its countless marginalized victims. She stands strong as a reminder of both the spectacular developments of science and the indisputable need for patient autonomy and respect. 

Sources:
https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/henriettalacks/
https://osp.od.nih.gov/scientific-sharing/hela-cells-timeline/
Illustrator: Keith Henry Brown, https://rethinkingschools.org/articles/beyond-just-a-cells-unit/

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